A drone or not a drone? Getting this question wrong could cost you

Was It Just a Case of Mistaken Identity?

On 22 January of this year, it happened again, or did it? A drone was spotted by two pilots approaching Newark Liberty International Airport – one of two international hubs that serve New York City. According to pilot reports, the device was soaring at an altitude of 3500 feet (1066 meters), well above the 400 feet (122 meters) prescribed by current civil aviation code.

Given the recent events on the other shore of the Atlantic – in the UK, Newark’s authority was taking no chances. The runway was closed with flights delayed or diverted, only to be re-opened 90 minutes later after no new drone sightings were reported. It seemed Newark’s mystery drone pilot wasn’t hellbent on causing any further trouble.

But within hours of the initial sighting, naysayers began popping up all over social media and the blogosphere – questioning if there had been a drone at all. As a recent article on the blog DroneDJ noted, even DJI jumped into the fray with the company’s Vice-President of Policy and Legal Affairs calling the sighting “not credible” on his personal Twitter account.

The official DJI account was more cautious in its assessment of the event but urged everyone to keep an open mind while reminding us of all the other times a bat, a balloon or even an airborne plastic bag had been mistaken for a rogue UAV bent on air traffic disruption.

Confusion Abounds

This isn’t the first time a drone sighting has been called into question. Readers may recall that in the heady swirl of confusion over the Gatwick shutdown Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley of Sussex police himself wondered – perhaps a bit too publicly – if the reason his officers couldn’t track down the offending device was that “there may not have been any genuine drone activity in the first place.”

The Sussex Police department was quick to issue a clarification of the Detective’s statement and a British government spokesperson characterized the quote as a miscommunication. Given the multiple witnesses who attest to having seen the UAV hovering over or near the runway, it’s highly likely that the Gatwick Drone was an authentic – and very costly – rogue drone intrusion.

But, why are these intrusions so difficult to pin down? Part of the reason may lie in the instrument used to make and confirm the majority of sightings – the human eye.

Visual Confirmation of Drone Sightings Is Not Enough

Human vision is not particularly well adapted to accurately identifying fast moving objects. A study conducted in 2012 by researchers at the University of Sydney’s school of psychology revealed that the brain sees fast-moving objects by “using blurs or streaks, as seen in photographs.”

Co-author of the paper Professor David Alais added, “The brain doesn’t see instantaneously. It takes about 100 milliseconds for the neurons in the brain to fully encode information.” Thus a quick-moving device like a drone may register as a blur across the field of vision.

While the brain can recognize the general direction of the blur and perhaps some aspects of its color and form, 100% accurate identification of the object in question is difficult. Throw in unfavorable light or weather conditions and certainty becomes even more elusive. Such factors help explain a large number of false UAV sightings in which a half-glimpsed balloon or plastic bag becomes a drone in the mind of the witness – his or her brain is spitting out the “most logical” interpretation of what it didn’t fully understand.

Given that some modified UAV’s can travel at speeds up to 260kmh (163 mph) in optimal conditions, the opposite may also occur. A real drone could be mistaken for a natural object, like a bird, and the threat goes unnoticed. Given the serious danger the hard metal parts and lithium batteries in many drones pose to landing and departing aircraft – such an oversight could be fatal.

Airspace Awareness = Airspace Security

And thus, we come to the most important reason accurate identification and investigation of alleged drone threats is so fundamental to the efficient and safe management of an airport: Safety. If an airport authority is aware of all objects in its airspace and able to distinguish between real and false alarms – everyone from administrators to airlines, to pilots to passengers, is safer and freer to go about their business.

But safety alone is only at the top of a very motivating list:

Costs – As any airport authority knows, the price of shutting down a runway – even temporarily – is extremely high. Three separate UAV-related incidents in 2016 alone shut down Dubai International Airport, the world’s 3rd busiest airport by international passenger traffic, with every drone intrusion costing an eyewatering US$1million (875,645€) per minute.

Gatwick was hit by an equally terrifying bill for its nearly 3-day runway closure. According to British press reports, the incident was estimated to have cost the airport authority and airlines over £50million (57millon euros).

With such high financial stakes, shutting down a runway over what turns out to be a free-flying plastic sack or misinterpreted reflection is clearly unacceptable. Airport authorities need to know what is in their airspace, otherwise they and the airlines who depend on their management risk losing millions.

Damaged Reputation – Not to pick on those airports who have suffered a drone intrusion, but it’s not a good look. Gatwick, as well as police and military units called in to find the errant UAV, found themselves the focus of anger and the butt of innumerable internet jokes during the crisis with criticism pouring in from passengers, airlines and government officials alike.

An opinion piece in American news channel Fox News observed acerbically that one tiny drone was managing to hold 100.000 people hostage (In reality over 140.000 passengers were affected) while a former UK Chief of the General Staff and former head of the British Army, Lord Dannatt called the incident a “national embarrassment.” His lordship added, “People in Europe are sniggering at us…and we’ve just given them 36 hours of fun laughing at this pantomime.”

Clearly, having a system in place to reliably distinguish between drones and other airborne objects (as well as the ability to trace any rogue drones and help locate their pilots) would have done much to avoid an embarrassing and demoralizing spectacle.

Airports Council International Calls for Action

The ACI (Airports Council International) is an organization created in 1991 by airport operators around the world and cooperates with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to: “Defend airports’ positions and develop standards and recommended practices in the areas of safety, security and environment initiatives.”

In January 2019 the ACI released an Advisory Bulletin entitled “Airport Preparedness – Drone related disruption to aircraft operations” in which it urged its members to take proper precautions against drone intrusions and the disruptions they’re liable to cause.

While the ACI advises members to be cautious when examining anti-drone systems, “ensuring that any new anti-drone measures do not create unintended safety hazards and unmitigated risks to other manned aircraft, authorized drones, and aviation infrastructures,” it nevertheless encourages airport authorities to take drone detection and neutralization seriously.

As their Advisory Bulletin pointedly states: “It is incumbent on all industry stakeholders to be prepared to protect the safety and regularity of aircraft operations.

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After Gatwick Could Sports Venues Be the Next Great Drone Debacle?

Stadiums Are At Risk From Rogue Drones

After a rather unfortunate end to 2018, Gatwick Airport administrators have learned that a little prevention goes a long way. Europe’s 8th busiest airport is busy installing anti-drone solutions to keep the UAVs away and airport authorities around the globe are following their example and investigating ways of protecting their own runways. Continue reading “After Gatwick Could Sports Venues Be the Next Great Drone Debacle?”

Gatwick Airport Hobbled by Hobby Drone Intrusion

From 9 pm to 3 am on Wednesday evening Gatwick Airport, Europe’s 8th busiest was shut down due to the presence of two rogue drones flying over its runway.

The drones reappeared on Thursday morning, affecting the flight plans of over 120.000 passengers according to Gatwick’s chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe and forcing flights to divert to airports as far away as Paris and Amsterdam.

Flights finally resumed on Friday morning under heavy police and military guard.

Theories that the drone intrusion was a deliberate act to disrupt air traffic at a particularly stressful time – the end of year travel season – have already begun making their rounds, with British authorities launching an official investigation.

But, whatever the motives of the pilots may have been, the incident illustrated just how easy it is to bring a major air hub to its knees with a cheap, easy to purchase hobby drone.

Extremely Dangerous to Aircraft

But how can such a small device cause such big trouble?

Hobby drones are tiny but pose an enormous collision risk to aircraft which could catastrophically weaken the structural integrity of the impacted aircraft. And unlike bird strikes, drones are not composed of organic material, but of plastic, metal and potentially explosive lithium batteries – significantly raising the risks.

Thus the message of Gatwick’s CEO Stewart Wingate to stranded passengers:

“We hope passengers appreciate that we must and will always prioritise their safety over everything else…until we are confident that the issue has been resolved it would clearly not be in the interests of passengers to do so [restart operations] as we could be jeopardising their safety.”

Indeed, allowing flights to continue with the presence of rogue drones in flight paths is a risk no sensible airport authority is willing to take.

Adding to the pain of airport administrators – shutdowns are incredibly expensive – a similar incident in Dubai in 2017 ended up costing as much as $1 million US per minute.

Taxpayers Impacted

On Thursday about 20 police units were busy searching the perimeter of the airfield of the drone pilots, which to date have still not been located. All that mobilization spells big bills for taxpayers who are obliged to fund attempts – often futile – to track down drown pilots after the fact.

Even mid-priced drones, such as Parrot’s ANAFI, have maximum ranges of up to 4km or 2.5 miles – allowing a pilot to wreak havoc from a safe distance and make his getaway long before police can determine his location by sight alone.

Why not just shoot the drone out of the sky?

“Why not just break out the rifles, blow the drone out of the sky and be done with it?” you may ask. In Gatwick’s case, police were reluctant to do so out of fear that stray bullets could possibly damage aircraft or injure passengers and crew.

Drones are also incredibly fast (some going up to 225kph or 140mph) and difficult to target, even for the best sharpshooters.

Pilot Localization is Key

Lucas Le Bell, founder of CerbAir anti-drone solutions knows how dangerous a drone in a no-fly zone can be. CerbAir has extensive experience in anti-drone protection over international airports such as Paris’ Charles de Gaulle – Roissy International Airport.

“This is proof that stricter legislation is not enough to eliminate the threat hobby drones pose to aviation, even at major airports like Gatwick. If you want to stop this sort of incident, you need to find the people responsible and bring them to justice to discourage others from doing the same thing, which is why it’s so important to be able to locate the pilot.”

Radio-frequency based anti-drone detection systems like CerbAir’s are able to locate not only the drone but its remote control from the moment the remote is activated. This allows airport authorities to find and apprehend rogue drone pilots and neutralize the threat straight away without using ammunition or jamming which can be dangerous in a crowded urban environment.

Major airports around the world such take the Gatwick debacle as a warning.

Deployment of anti-drone detection, pilot localization, and drone neutralization should no longer be considered optional.

Indeed, Stewart Wingate recognized the need for action in his official statement, writing:

“These events obviously highlight a wider strategic challenge for aviation in this country which we need to address together with speed – the aviation industry, Government and all the other relevant authorities.”

In a world where one tiny drone is all it takes to ground dozens of jumbo jets, finding and making an example of irresponsible pilots is the only way forward.

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